Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom

In This Review

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick
Spiegel & Grau, 2009
336 pp. $26.00
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The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom
By Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh
Rowman & Littlefield, 2009
296 pp. $39.95
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Why do North Koreans continue to obey a regime that abuses and starves them? Demick interviewed six citizens from a single small town who had defected. Rich in context and detail, the book provides a riveting account of how a functioning totalitarian system decayed into a land of starvation. Each individual was subjected to multiple vectors of fear -- for his career, his freedom, and his life. Demick explores the double-mindedness that political repression creates, when the prudent self helps the regime force the doubting self to keep quiet. As their belief in the Kim dynasty fell apart, these North Koreans went through a lonely, painful process. The careful objectivity of its author makes this compulsively readable, intimate story of fear, conformity, starvation, and flight all the more moving.

Hassig and Oh describe the country's economic, political, and caste systems from an institutional perspective. They explain how the government controls wages and rations food, how it monitors the population, and how it conducts propaganda -- with the unintended help of the United States, starring as the bogeyman. They offer a detailed picture of the lives of Kim Jong Il and the members of his entourage and a study of why and how defectors break for the outside. Both books show that the regime is under stress, but they also reveal the mechanisms by which, for the time being, it is holding tight.

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